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[78] The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

namesake.jpgWe say America is a melting pot owing to the diversity of culture that immigrants have brought into the country over generations. It’s like a tureen of rich porridge simmering over time, that a thorough stirring and mixing of all of its precious ingredients are conducive to the delicious taste. The Gagulis in The Namesake is like lump in this porridge–adamantly clumping up the ladle and refusing to blend in with the rest.

The Namesake, seeping with an exquisite and subtle tension, is a closely observed family saga spanning two generations and two continents. It is an aching story of a Bengali family caught in the crossroad of preserving their heritage and assimilating to a strange terrain. The struggle to retain their root never fails to seep in throughout the novel. Cultural disorientation is depicted with a heart-breaking candor: Ashima cannot raise a child in a country she doesn’t call home. In spite of giving in to American customs and celebrations, the Gangulis thrive to imbue their son native language, culture lessons; for when they close their eyes it never fails to unsettle them that their children sound just like Americans, expertly conversing in a language that still at times confounds them, in accents they are accustomed not to trust.

But the trouble of the Gangulis roots even deeper than the occasional smirking at their thick accents, it is the peculiarity of the name they bestow on this firstborn–Gogol. The piteous life and morbid death of his namesake, the Russian author Nikolai Gogol–unnerves him. He hates questions pertaining to his name as much as he is baffled by the obscure reason for his name. Little did he know that the name bequeaths significant meaning to his father Ashoke, who has named his son after the author not only because he is a fan but also of the glimpse of hope and the blessed life after stepping one foot in the throe of death. That he has miraculously survived a tragedy, which was shrouded wittingly from his son, makes him utterly grateful for his life. Gogol not so much reminds him of the catastrophe as the name reminds him of everything that followed the accident.

In so many ways, the life of the Ganguli family feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen and unintended, one incident begetting another to fate’s ingenuity. It had started with a train wreck near Calcutta, paralyzing Ashoke at first, later inspiring him to move as far as possible, to make a new life out of the world. There was the disappearance of the letter bearing the name Gogol’s great-grandmother had chosen for him, lost in the mail somewhere between calcutta and America. This had led, in turn, to the accident of his being named Gogol, defining and distressing him for so many years. He thrives to correct that randomness and error. He alienates from his family of whom he doesn’t feel attached. He immerses in his Caucasian girlfriend’s family, hoping to dislodge his Begali root. It isn’t simply the fact that his parents don’t know about his girlfriend, instead it is his embarrassed knowledge that apart from their affluence, his girlfriend’s parents are secure in a way his parents will never be.

And yet Gogol has not been able to reinvent himself fully, to break from that mismatched name. His life in fact has been something of a series of mishap. Like his parents, he realizes there were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spends a lifetime looking back at, reflecting upon, trying to accept, and to comprehend. It is then does Gogol perceive his parents’ sacrifice: Leaving their respective families behind, seeing them so seldom, dwelling unconnected (and sometimes helplessly) in a perpetual state of expectation, being oblivious of anything that might have gone amiss. For they have lived their life and grow to love each other in America, a distant, unknown horizon, in spite of what was missing is a stamina Gogol fears does not ever possess himself.

The Namesake portrays an immigrant family at its most frail and vulnerable, making the best out of what it was missing for the sake of their children. It silently praises the strength that the family cultivated through the tangled ties and the clash between generations.

7 Responses

  1. nice blog ….. tahnks man

  2. This sounds like a great book. I’d like to read it before seeing the movie (which I have not heard anything about–review-wise).

  3. […] in 2006 and is based upon the book by Jhumpa Lahiri. I found a very eloquent review of the book here, and a blog dedicated to the movie […]

  4. […] J: James, Henry – The Wings of the Dove K: Knowles, John – A Separate Peace L: Lahiri, Jhumpa – The Namesake M: Maugham, W. Somerset – The Painted Veil N: Niffenegger, Audrey – The Time Traveler’s Wife O: […]

  5. […] remembered walking into the cinema with little expectation of The Namesake which is based on the novel with the same title by Jhumpa Lahiri. Books and films are completely different in their artistic […]

  6. […] debut novel is reminiscent of the generational misunderstanding and denial of heritage in The Namesake; and the repression of women in Finding Nouf. My only complaint is that Haji doesn’t reveal […]

  7. I liked The Namesake, but I loved two collections of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri–Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. I would highly recommend both.

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